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But Snow White Was Fairer Still

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Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess. So delicate of feature and fair of face was she, bards sang songs about her. Each day she grew in her loveliness.

Lords, princes, and kings would come from all over to ask for her hand. And each one she would refuse, saying none could match her.

One day the king put his foot down. She was to marry and that was that.

"Fine," she said to her father the king, "but I will choose my own terms. Since no man can match me, I require that they bring me a gift instead that does."

The king assented and the challenge was sent out.

One lord brought a phoenix, eternal and undying, that burnt itself down to ashes and back to life for her pleasure.

"No," said the princess. "I would be forced to spend my lifetime caring for a creature that would never die and give me peace. This is not the gift for me."

A prince brought an amazing bauble, round and shining, full of depth. The eye of an ogre, gained from combat.

The princess demanded it be examined and it proved to be cut glass.

"Its beauty, unlike mine, is false. I will not have it," said she.

And then one day a king came, and with him he had a fairy mirror.

"This fairy mirror will tell you the answer to any question you pose, truthfully and honestly," he told the princess.

The princess gazed into the mirror, which did not reflect her, considering her first question to test it.

Finally, she said:

‘Tell me, glass, tell me true!
Of all the ladies in the land,
Who is fairest, tell me, who?’

Lips appeared on the mirror's clouded surface and it intoned in an unearthly voice:

‘Thou, princess, art the fairest in all the land.’

"I will marry you," she said to the king.

She was not the king's first wife. He'd had another who had borne him a daughter before passing away. The daughter was barely a year old, pale, dark-haired, and rosy cheeked. Her name was Snowdrop.

The princess, now queen, left Snowdrop in the care of governesses. It was not her daughter.

Instead the queen focused on her gift. She would ask it countless questions, learning secrets both magical and mundane. And every day she would ask again: who was the fairest? Just to hear that satisfying answer.

One day, the king fell ill.

The next day, he worsened.

On the third day, he died.

The queen was now ruler of his lands. She used the mirror to keep her political enemies in line. None could have a secret that she would not find out and use like a knife in their backs.

She barely remembered Snowdrop, save a vague mental picture of a pale little girl playing off in the corner. She was no concern of the queen's. Too young to be a threat or worth her time.

Rulership was wearying. She knew she relied on the mirror as a crutch - without it, she would have no way to destroy those who opposed her. All she had, she realized, was her ambition and her beauty. And even then, she cared only for her beauty.

She took to exotic creams and treatments, a unicorn's blood here, dragon's claw powder there, and lips painted a deadly red. The rare flower she had needed to brighten her lips had led to the death of six of her soldiers, but, as she studied herself in the mirror, she felt it was worth it.

"Mirror," she began.

‘Tell me, glass, tell me true!
Of all the ladies in the land,
Who is fairest, tell me, who?’

The queen never tired of hearing of her treasure, her beauty.

‘Thou, queen, art fair, and beauteous to see,
But Snowdrop is lovelier far than thee!’

Her smile cracked.

Seven years old. Snowdrop was seven years old, her governess told the queen. Seven years old and she dared to surpass the queen's beauty.

The queen watched Snowdrop sleep.

It was true, the child had an unearthly beauty. Bewitching. The queen wondered - how had the king gotten her fairy mirror? What manner of woman had Snowdrop's mother been?

Not that she wondered much, for almost all thoughts were driven out by a cold, burning rage.

She knew it would be political suicide to dash the girl's brains out in the bed where she slept, as much as she dearly wished to. No, another way would have to be found. She called for her huntsman.

"Take her to the woods and slit her throat. Bring me her heart, so that I may know the deed was done."

The huntsman, loyal to her for so long, bowed and took the little girl out. A day trip for the princess.

The rage did not subside.

When he returned with a bloody heart, she indulged her anger as she had never before: she ate the heart.

Snowdrop's body was not found immediately and when it was, horror raced through the kingdom. Someone had murdered the little child and cut out her heart.

The queen held a day of mourning, hiding an icy smile.

It was some time before the queen returned to her fairy mirror. Ever since her cruel dinner, a feeling of unease had settled upon her. At times her stomach ached so badly she called out for her doctor, who found nothing wrong.

She fired him and demanded another. And another. Still the pains.

Throughout, she maintained her beauty. Her creams, her powders, her paints. Her people continued to say, their queen was the fairest of all. What did they know, she thought. They knew no queen but her.

Eventually she could deny herself no longer, stealing into her secret chamber, and pulling the mirror out from the silks where she let it rest. It was her treasured magical pet.

Holding it aloft, she intoned:

‘Tell me, glass, tell me true!
Of all the ladies in the land,
Who is fairest, tell me, who?’

And the lips did not appear. The mirror did not speak to her.

A small pale face, skin as white as snow, hair as black as coal, and cheeks as red as blood stared out instead.

"Why did you kill me?" Snowdrop asked softly.

She had not smashed the mirror. She had buried it back in the silks, left the room, locked the door, and gone for a walk on the parapets like nothing had happened. Her ladies in waiting kept their distance. They knew when the queen walked with such tight energy, pain was liable to ensue for any who crossed her.

She walked from tower to tower. Her stomach roiled, as if a stone pressed on it from the inside.

No matter how quickly she strode, she could hear the pitter patter of Snowdrop's feet behind her.

"Please tell me!" Snowdrop pleaded.

Unaware that the princess was among them, none of the ladies acknowledged her.

The queen stared straight ahead, focusing on her steps. The little wight would not defeat her. She would not confess, in front of witnesses no less, to having killed the child.

In fact, she realized, she would have to deal with the only other one to know.

Her huntsman must die.

"Please!" said Snowdrop.

Her solution was as simple as it was elegant.

A simple poison on a gilded rose thorn, a gift and favour from the queen to her loyal servant. Delivered to his hut by her personally, though she took pains not to be seen by him.

The gilt rose was sent to him in a wooden box, sealed with the queen's blood red kiss. A finer treasure than the huntsman had ever seen before. She watched, hidden by her cloak and the shadows, as he picked it up in awe. As his thumb pricked itself on a thorn.

He fell dead, the poison almost magic in its efficiency.

The queen swept the rose back into the box and sealed it and its deadly thorn up. She would throw the box into the river to hide her deed.

"Why?" asked Snowdrop.

"Shut up, you little wretch," she answered, ignoring the twisting in her gut.

After that she needed only suggest it was the huntsman, working alone, who killed the princess. But every time her people asked about the body's missing heart, how could the man have done such a thing, the queen's stomach would clench.

And people did ask. It was a horror story around court.

One night she could bear it no longer. An official making a passionate request for new paved roads, to be named in honour of the dead princess Snowdrop, stopped her speech and stared as the queen howled with waves of pain.

"Your majesty!" she said.

The queen was doubled over from agony.

Snowdrop stood beside the throne, looking up at her, unseen by the court.

"Please tell me," Snowdrop said.

The queen gasped out that she would be retiring to her chambers. She barely made it behind her doors before collapsing, writhing in excruciating pain.

Then she felt it. The heart beating in her stomach.

Snowdrop stood in front of the queen as she screamed on the floor.

"Why did you do it?" Snowdrop asked.

"Because what's mine is mine and no little beast may take it from me!" she shrieked, clawing at the phantom.

"But why!" said Snowdrop, her body under the queen's fingers only frost.

"You earned nothing! The work! You... "

The queen gasped, doubling up. Her body spasmed and the heart made itself free. Beating.

Snowdrop picked it up.

"How did you earn your face? My heart?" she said. Her eyes were dark wells now.

Guards were breaking down the door behind her, brought by the queen's screams.

"I did not! Is that what you want to hear, beast! Changeling! I was fortunate and I would not yield what was mine! Go! Go and bother me no more!" shrieked the queen.

"I suppose you answered me," said Snowdrop, dropping the heart with a wet noise in front of the queen and fading away.

And the guards burst in to their queen, lying there with the cut-out heart of the dead princess.

A story now traverses the kingdom, of the evil queen and the little princess. Children tell it to their younger siblings to terrify them. Wary men tell it about the campfire.

And somewhere, perhaps, Snowdrop still plays.

As for the fairy mirror? Who can say.